By Arizona State University President Michael Crow and ASU Associate Professor Derrick M. Anderson:
It is anything but hyperbole to say that American higher education is home to some of the most important and impactful institutions ever created. And yet, public opinion about higher education tells a different story. Current polling indicates that American confidence in higher education is at its lowest in recent memory. Rather than dismissing the findings or picking them apart with highly sophisticated methodological critiques, we choose to accept the reality that public confidence in our industry is suffering despite the impressive accomplishments of its institutions and their promise for even greater impact.
This mismatch between how a public-serving industry is appreciated and how it actually performs is characteristic of “public value failure.” While its roots are academic, the concept of “public value failure” is far from esoteric scholarly jargon. Described by our colleague, Barry Bozeman, as instances where neither the market nor the public sector provide the goods and services society agrees should be available, public value failures are the tragic everyday experiences of nearly everyone. We believe that accepting the reality of this moment as a public value failure may accelerate our ability to identify solutions and chart paths for improvement. We’ve seen this happen in our own work, especially at Arizona State University, where one of us, Crow, is president, and both of us are professors.
Anyone who believes in the uniqueness and power of the American experiment with democracy is compelled to acknowledge the significance of American higher education. Not only did its early graduates and faculty contribute to the design and establishment of this great system, but its institutions have been deeply involved in the system’s continued refinement, improvement and implementation. From the Declaration of Independence to the development of Covid-19 vaccines, American colleges and universities have played outsized roles in fostering social and economic progress in this country and beyond. Data on the benefits of higher education show that completion of a college degree is a reliable and consistent predictor of upward socioeconomic mobility. Completion of a college degree is associated with improvements in mental and physical health. Cities with colleges tend to be more economically competitive. Nearly every member of Congress and almost all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have college degrees. And it’s not just degrees from elite private institutions that predict success. CEOs at 14 of the top 20 companies have degrees from public universities.
Despite compelling arguments and an abundance of evidence in support of colleges and universities, public confidence in the sector is weak and seems to be weakening. A June 2023 Gallup poll found that only 36 percent of Americans had either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Less than a year earlier, in July 2022, progressive think tank New America found that the number of Americans who believed that higher education was having a positive effect on the country had dropped to 55 percent, down from 69 percent in 2020. Experts rightfully observe that public confidence is also declining in many other institutions, including small business, big business, the military, police, banks, courts and health care. And we should appreciate all these findings in the context of historically unprecedented efforts by a small but influential number of elected officials who have worked openly and effectively to erode public trust in these institutions.